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Old Wardour Castle
an English gem in the Wiltshire countryside
I am again on my travels, and today I am visiting the ruins of Wardour Castle. Technically it is referred to as Old Wardour Castle, as with many old castles, the owners built newer ‘castles’ or stately homes to replace them. Old Wardour Castle is near the small Wiltshire town of Tisbury and around 17 miles west of the City of Salisbury.
Old Wardour Castle
The castle was built in the 1390s on land originally owned by the de St Martin family. John Lovell, the fifth Baron Lovell, purchased the land for the castle. His surname gives rise to the Wiltshire village of Upton Lovell, close to Warminster and the Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell. Permission to build the castle was granted in 1392/93 by King Richard ll. It was a legal requirement to obtain permission from the King to build a fortified structure.
Using the Waze app as my sat nav, it led me through some beautiful countryside as I got closer to the castle. Be aware that the lanes are very narrow, and as sat nav’s do, they tend to find the shortest route, which led me down some very narrow roads. The sort of lanes where the car door mirrors almost touch the hedgerow on both sides and the grass is growing through the centre of the road. If you ever visit, I recommend you use a map for the last few miles and choose the best route for width.
Once you arrive at the castle, you will see its beautiful position in the Wiltshire countryside. On my visit, it looked glorious in the sunshine, and the many shades of green in the gardens provided a wonderful backdrop. We have been enjoying so much sun this year, making things look much better than in the often overcast skies.
Old Wardour Castle’s mixed fortunes
As with so many English castles, Old Wardour has had mixed fortunes. In 1461 (the eighth), Lord Lovell forfeited the castle due to his support for King Henry Vl, who was deposed that year. Following a period when it changed ownership several times, it was purchased by Sir Thomas Arundell in 1547. Royal connections, although valuable, can also prove deadly. Sir Thomas was executed following the coup which overthrew the Lord Protector of England, the First Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour. He was acting as the King’s representative for the young boy Edward Vl who was only nine years old when he was crowned on the 20th of February 1547.
Sir Thomas’ son, Sir Matthew Arundell, eventually regained possession of Old Wardour Castle, repurchasing it in 1570. He had been working his way up in Queen Elizabeth the First’s government. It’s a case of keeping in with the Royals again! Sir Matthew wanted the castle to be modernised, and it is believed he employed the architect Robert Smythson to work on it. Smythson is notable for his work designing Longleat House, now a tourist destination due to its wildlife park - The Lions of Longleat.
A new front door was added, and above it, as you can see in the photo, are two statement pieces. The top is a bust of Jesus Christ, which would have shone in the light as it was gilded. This was quite a statement to make as religious imagery and icons were very much seen as Roman Catholic during those early protestant years. It is most likely that Sir Matthew was a ‘clandestine Catholic’. His father, brother and son certainly were of the Roman Catholic faith.
The other statement piece beneath the bust of Jesus is the family coat of arms. This, in effect, says, “We’re back - we belong here!” Entering through this front door, I notice hallway shows signs of grandeur that Smythson had improved the castle. Ornate stonework was added, making the castle’s interior more of a home, and something to impress visitors, than a fortification. Windows were enlarged to provide more light and a full view of the countryside, probably not too much different from today.
Why is the castle in ruins? We come back to connections with Royalty once more. In 1642 England was plunged into civil war. The Arundell family were Royalists, supporting King Charles l. In support of the King of England, Thomas the Second Lord Arundell went to Oxford to join the King in the spring of 1643. His wife, Lady Blanche Arundell, was left in charge of the castle. It wasn’t long before the Parliamentarians (aka Roundheads) turned up under the command of Sir Edward Hungerford (read about his castle here).
The Siege of Wardour Castle
The castle was under siege for six days and amazingly held by Lady Arundell and her small force of around twenty-five men. This story became famous then and appeared in the day's propaganda. She surrendered when Hungerford threatened to blow up the castle. Shortly afterwards, Lord Thomas Arundell was killed in battle. At the end of the year, in December, the heir to the castle, Lord Henry Arundell, arrived at the castle, which was being used as a garrison under the command of Edmund Ludlow.
Arundell besieged the castle for three months, which ended in March 1644 when he blew up one side of his castle. This might have been an accident. It may be that he was hoping the threat of explosives would have been enough to end the siege and, at that stage, didn’t intend them to be ignited. Possibly it was gunfire that caused the ignition.
The Parliamentarians regained the ruined castle as the war progressed. The Arundells did get it back in 1660 when Charles ll was restored to the English throne. It was never lived in again, the family built a smaller home nearby, and a hundred years later, they built a grand house which can be seen in the distance from the castle. With the building of this later home, Old Wardour Castle became a large garden feature. The grotto was also constructed in the garden, which is nice to sit in and walk through on a hot day.
Unlike many ruins with only walls and no floors, we can climb up many staircases and see some rooms that were not destroyed. I have a video on my YouTube Channel and will embed it at the end of this article. Working my up through the floors, English Heritage does an excellent job of telling the story with information boards. I recommend that if you want a detailed account of any English Heritage property where a guidebook is available, do obtain one. The books are very well produced and will grace any bookshelf.
Climbing to each floor offers more views of the countryside, the lake and the garden.
It’s good to know some of the history of these places, and it helps me, and I am sure other visitors get a feel for what life was like during those different times. I try to imagine what it would have been like during those sieges. During happier times, think about the parties in the great hall, the heat of the kitchen, and those working hard to provide food and serve the guests.
Climbing the narrow spiral staircases, I think of those poor servants carrying items for their master or mistress, especially in the darkness. Even during daylight, some of the staircases would have enjoyed little light. The flames from candlelight wouldn’t have given much brightness to reduce the gloom. Did many of them fall and hurt themselves on the stone steps? It’s little wonder that Sir Matthew Arundell, when he made improvements to the castle, increased the size of the windows, even though it made it more vulnerable if attacked.
Old Wardour Castle is undoubtedly worthy of a visit and is, thankfully, well looked after by English Heritage. It has played its part in the history of England, and today, we can experience some of that by looking at the ruins. I hope you have enjoyed this account. It’s greatly appreciated if you share it and become a free subscriber if you’re not already.
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